Can you imagine any country today—much less the United States—in national mourning over the death of a classical composer? When Giuseppe Verdi died in January 1901, Italy wept as one. Almost a quarter million people took to the streets, marching to “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco—better known as the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves—sung by a choir and the public under the baton of celebrated maestro Arturo Toscanini.
There is no question that Verdi was a great composer. Along with an eternal Requiem, sacred choral music and some notable chamber and orchestral works, there are the thirty or so operas, at least 20 of which comprise the core operatic canon. The bicentenary for Verdi—compared to the festivities organized for other composers in 2013—scarcely had an impact. This is not an indication of the esteem in which he is held; it merely reflects the fact that his music is performed all the time anyway, all over the world. It’s a pretty safe bet that, on any given night, someone somewhere will be singing Rigoletto or Othello, Aida or Violetta.
But the reason that the Italians took to the streets that wintry day at the dawn of the last century was about much more than music. Verdi’s operas had provided the soundtrack to the politically tempestuous half-century that preceded his death, and his most famous arias had become quasi anthems for a nation recently unified. When Nabucco had its premiere at La Scala in 1842, ‘Italy’ was simply a cluster of geographically contiguous kingdoms and principalities with little more to unite them than a common language, if that.
So when Italians sang the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves at Verdi’s funeral procession, it wasn’t just because it was a catchy tune they knew the words to. Its subject—the Israelites giving poignant voice to their longing for the Promised Land—had become a powerful analogue for the long-frustrated desires of the Italian people. When they cried “Viva Verdi!” during the funeral procession, they were acutely aware of the slogan’s double meaning and its clandestine resonance for the agitators of ‘the Risorgimento’, as the cause of Italian nationalism was known. The letters VERDI also spelled out the name of the King of Sardinia who, in 1861, took the throne of a unified nation for the first time since the 6th century—Victor Emmanuele Re D’Italia.
That same year, at the request of the new Prime Minister Camillo Cavour, Verdi entered the country’s first parliament, in which he served for four years. Verdi threw himself wholeheartedly into the spirit of Risorgimento. He was pragmatic enough to realize that the most realistic prospect for unification lay in supporting the king. He was anti-clerical, anti-war, an ardent patriot and a liberal, and his operas became powerful vehicles for his political beliefs.
Not surprisingly, contemporary historians quickly embraced the message of early operas like Nabucco, Ernani, e Attila, absorbing the works into the nationalist cause. In addition to the political messages they carried either directly or indirectly, Verdi’s instinct for communicating the messy adventure of being human with pathos, empathy, and thrilling drama was simply unparalleled. It was that genius, ultimately, that elevated his status beyond a mere conjurer of music and words.
Please watch the following video of Ricardo Muti directing “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco in Rome in 2011. It is very emotional when the audience participates….